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Copenhagen's Tivoli park has it all

The 165-year-old amusement park that inspired both Walt Disney and Danish fairy tale writer Hans Christian Andersen offers style and charm of a kind often imitated.
Image: People ride 'The Demon', Tivoli Gardens' roller coaster in Copenhagen, Denmark
Thrill seekers try out 'The Demon', Tivoli Gardens' roller coaster in Copenhagen, Denmark. Passengers pass through three loops on the roller coaster, at a top speed of 80 kph, on a circuit of almost 600 meters, and 28 meters high. Kim Nielsen / AP file
/ Source: The Associated Press

The 165-year-old amusement park that inspired both Walt Disney and Danish fairy tale writer Hans Christian Andersen offers style and charm of a kind often imitated.

Tivoli, Copenhagen's downtown landmark, blends tradition and modernity with old-style Ferris wheels and gravity-defying rides, family restaurants and gourmet eateries.

Neon lights are banned here and plastic materials are avoided — beer cups aside — to preserve the feel of an old-style amusement park.

"We want to maintain tradition and quality," Tivoli manager Lars Liebst said.

In 1841, Georg Carstensen sought royal permission to create an amusement park on the ramparts that once surrounded medieval Copenhagen. The son of a diplomat, he wanted to give Danes samples of the wonders he had seen during childhood trips abroad.

Tivoli opened two years later.

The Danish capital has since grown around the green oasis where families and friends stroll, and lovers cuddle up on benches amid oaks, birches and Japanese cherry trees.

"It's so beautiful, it's cozy," said Elin Peitersen, a 74-year-old retired secretary. "You can take your family along or sit on a bench, like I do, and enjoy others having a good time."

The park is charming but it's the thrill rides Tivoli is famous for, especially among the throngs of young visitors.

The youngest children prefer the slow-moving vintage car ride, while exhilarated teenagers zoom past in the adrenalin-pumping roller coaster.

Meanwhile Tivoli's Boys Guards march behind children dressed up as royals, riding a horse-drawn carriage through the garden.

The scent of popcorn and cotton candy fills the air while Vienna waltzes, big-band tunes and rock music play in the background through the evening.

A stone's throw away is the Chinese-style Pantomime Theater from 1874 with its peacock curtain. When the bird lowers its tail, the curtain rises for one of Europe's last stages keeping Commedia dell'Arte traditions alive.

"I heard it was a famous amusement park so I wanted to see for myself," said Sung Young-Jae, a 36-year-old visitor from Seoul, South Korea. "It is very beautiful but I am a little bit disappointed, it is so small."

The park covers about 880,000 square feet (82,000 square meters), elbowed between the City Hall and the capital's main train station.

Disney visited Tivoli several times in the 1950s and 1960s to seek inspiration for his theme parks in the United States, Liebst said.

Nearly a century earlier, Andersen, the legendary children's author, wrote "The Nightingale" after watching the illuminated Chinese Tower, one of the park's landmarks.

Today, the park is lit by tens of thousands of colored lights after nightfall.

Before each summer season, which runs from mid-April to mid-September, gardeners plant 100,000 bulbs alongside another 50,000 flowers.

Posters announce Israeli conductor Daniel Barenboim, k.d. lang and the New York City Ballet, among others, will perform this season, either at Tivoli's concert hall or on an outdoor stage where strong men and bearded ladies once performed.

For the 2008 season, Tivoli reopened a Moorish-style building from 1909, which has been through a major renovation. The white edifice, now decorated with 3,600 different colored light bulbs, was originally covered with papier-mache and chicken wire.

"Craftsmen back then used other methods," Liebst said, smiling. The park hired Italian workers to recreate the front using a mixture of concrete and marble. The building now houses a high-end restaurant, a dairy, a deli and a luxury hotel with 13 suites.

Tivoli has extended its opening times in recent years. The park twinkled in the Nordic winter darkness for the first time in 1994 and now stays open for four weeks over Christmas and New Year's. A fall season was introduced in 2005 and focuses on Halloween's universe of witches, pumpkin lanterns and autumn crops.

In past years, the number of visitors during the summer season has hovered just above 3 million. Visitors are chiefly Danes and Scandinavians. Less than 10 percent come from outside the region.

"We depend very much on the weather," Liebst said, adding that a gray and rainy summer last year meant only 2.9 million people went through the gates.

When Tivoli opened on Aug. 15, 1843, 3,615 visitors were recorded. Some 10,000 came on the following Sunday.

The biggest day was Tivoli's 100th birthday, when 112,802 celebrated "Carstensen's old garden," as Danes like to call the park.